In the Middle East, the status of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has always been shaky. Now this unique international regime is in danger of losing its remaining relevance. A number of the most problematic signatories are located in this region, beginning with Iraq, which acquired the French-built Osiraq reactor and other technology in order to produce material for use in making weapons. Later, Libya attempted to follow a similar path, and Algeria remained outside the treaty structure until 1995, when US satellite images discovered a reactor that had been secretly acquired from China.
There are also unconfirmed reports of clandestine programs in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, based on the assistance provided by Pakistan’s nuclear entrepreneur, Abdul Qadeer Khan. As a result, confidence in the ability of the NPT regime, including the IAEA safeguards system, to prevent proliferation in the Middle East has never been particularly high, even before the illicit Iranian program was revealed.
The question of the NPT’s relevance has been further highlighted by the conflict surrounding Israeli exceptionality. For over three decades, successive Israeli governments have concluded that the NPT requirements are incompatible with Israel’s core deterrence requirements. But unlike the regimes in Iraq and Iran, Israel did not try to have its nuclear cake (by signing the NPT), and eat it too (by cheating).
Nor, in contrast to the other two non-signatories (India and Pakistan), has Israel declared itself to be a nuclear power, or exploded weapons to demonstrate such capabilities. The policy of ambiguity remains in place as the least bad option, which both meets Israel’s security needs and also limits the impact on the NPT regime.
In this context, the continuous efforts to press Israel to accept the terms of the Treaty and relinquish its nuclear deterrent option have not made significant headway. The current NPT Review Conference taking place in New York is unlikely to change this situation.
These efforts are generally based on claims of "universality", which is the diplomatic equivalent of "one size fits all", in which all states, large or small, powerful or weak, democratic or dictatorial, are forced into a single set of requirements. Universality also fails to consider the problem of countries that sign treaties and then find ways to violate them.
This distorted framework ignores Israel’s unique strategic situation and political environment, which includes missiles paraded through the streets of Tehran decorated with signs that read "Wipe Israel off the Map". Thus, until the concept of universality is also applied to requirements for democracy, mutual acceptance and strategic depth, there is no justification for demanding it with respect to the Non- Proliferation Treaty alone.
The main cost of this public relations campaign regarding Israel’s status is to deflect the focus and resources from the much more important challenges facing the NPT system, particularly in the Middle East. Despite the weaknesses, for most of the past three decades the terms of this treaty and the verification mechanisms under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have prevented many countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding its flaws, the NPT has been an unusual success, and rather than promoting policies that will lead to its collapse, positive action needs to be taken in order to strengthen its effectiveness.
As noted, the holes in the fabric of this treaty come from a few countries and regimes. Saddam Hussein was the first major violator to be exposed–he signed the NPT to acquire peaceful technology while secretly using the materials and knowledge in making weapons. In many cases, his illegal facilities were literally across the street, but IAEA inspectors could not go beyond the buildings designated by the Iraqi government. The international response was too weak and slow to provide an effective response.
After this ruse was exposed following the 1991 war, the IAEA tightened its inspection system, but it failed to deter other NPT signatories, including Iran, from violating its terms. Iran continues using the nuclear energy facade in an effort to acquire weapons, and while the IAEA has reported on these activities in great detail, the diplomatic process led by the European Union appears to be going nowhere.
If Iran continues on this path and begins to produce significant amounts of fissile material for weapons production, this is likely to end any role for the NPT in the Middle East. The resulting arms race between Israel and Iran–with no diplomatic relations, no means of direct communication, and a high potential for conflict–could quickly lead to widespread regional instability, and generate efforts by Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other countries to gain similar capabilities. And without this unique arms control framework, warts and all, the region and the world would be far more dangerous.